Letter to My 18-Year-Old Self

Hi Diego, hope you’re doing well. I know it’s 1988 and you’re in college. Actually I know exactly how you’re doing, because I am you. If you are reading this, it means the universe just forked. I don’t remember reading it, so your timeline is no longer mine. Or maybe it is and my memory has been erased. It’s been a while, you know. I’m writing this in 2023. So do me a favor, let’s pretend we are the same person, ok?

I’m going to tell you a few things that might save you (might have saved me) a fair amount of unnecessary suffering. First off, things are going to be fine. In some respects, life is going to surpass your expectations. You will experience life in different cities and countries (hint, why do you think I’m writing this in English?). It will be a bumpy ride, of course. It will get very rough at times, and sometimes you won’t believe that things will ever get better. But they will.

Now, you think you’re so smart these days. Your brain is great at everything logical, your writing is much better and funnier than mine (enjoy it while it lasts). Also you are a handsome guy, no homo (both in the Latin and Greek senses). The problem is that you think everyone sucks, and very few people are worthy of your time. And it’s not that you’re wrong; humans in general do suck. But let me tell you, you suck as much as everyone else. And you suck in ways that will take you a long time to discover.

I know you don’t believe me. I’m writing to myself from the future to convey the message that I really sucked? Yes, you are very flawed in important ways. It’s not your fault, that’s just the lottery of being a human being. You don’t understand human nature very well. You think you do, but you really have no idea. It’s not that I understand that much more than you, but at least I have come to terms with how much I don’t know. The most important thing I want to tell you is this: you are very good at finding faults with people. You judge them quickly. If someone isn’t good at X or Y, it’s obvious to you. You fixate on that. I can’t tell you why you do this, I haven’t figured it out yet. But it does prevent you from enjoying many potential relationships.

If I could go back to being your age with what I know, I would try to be much more compassionate. Many (most?) people out there are aware of their worst flaws, and they don’t need to be reminded of them. Also, you constantly meet people that have attributes that you would enjoy. But you don’t give them a chance. Try this: when you have an opportunity to meet someone new, ask yourself “what is uniquely interesting about this person? What can I learn from them? Can I enjoy hanging out with them? I know they are flawed just like me. Are their flaws a deal-breaker, or can I set them aside and enjoy the good?” Trust me, you will be happier.

I know you feel very lonely a lot of the time. You find yourself listening to FM radio alone on a Saturday night, wondering if there are other people like you experiencing similar feelings and thoughts. You don’t know this, but you’re far from unique or alone. Unfortunately for you there is no “internet” yet. But in a few years you will be able to chat with people around the world 24/7 with your computer. It will get better.

Finally, let’s talk about women. I’ve read the funny stories you wrote, like the one about an infinite number of sexes in some sci-fi future. But I know you are really afraid of approaching women. You are very impatient, and you get anxious. You don’t want to say stupid things or act like a fool, so you end up doing nothing. Girls who like you give you hints that you don’t pick up at all, and they are very confused. You know what? They are as confused and afraid as you. Nobody knows anything, and we all pretend we do. The older you knows enough to be comfortable with this fact. Talk to them, say stupid things, let your inexperience show. It doesn’t matter. I know you hate to dress well, because it’s uncomfortable. But you’ll learn that sometimes in life that’s a price you have to pay. Keep working out, and let someone else help you out with your clothes and your hair. You will experience some awkwardness and heartbreak, but also you will have fewer regrets than I. I did pretty well in the love department, but later and at a significant cost. Maybe you can do better. Anyway, just make sure you don’t get anyone pregnant by accident. I would hate to see the timeline in which you did not [spoiler alert] move to Silicon Valley because you had to support a family at a young age.

A few more things: your brain will sometimes spend a ton of cycles making you suffer for no reason. You will get lost in the metaphysical horror of “why is there anything at all?” until one day you’ll realize that the question itself doesn’t make sense. Think of this: at the very least logic exists. If there is no logic, then anything is possible. Including something coming out of nothing. So when those thoughts make you dizzy at night, just remember that your brain is trying to apply logic where it doesn’t fit. There can’t be a “why” for everything, “why” is just a thing our brains make up. Leave it be.

Finally, a word about anxiety. Not everyone experiences or understands the types of anxieties that you do. Maybe anxiety is not even the right word. Sometimes your body will create very unpleasant sensations that seem to come out of nowhere, and you’ll believe that you can fix it with thoughts. You can’t. Some people will tell you to relax, to work out, to eat well, to live a healthy lifestyle, to think positive thoughts. And all of that will work sometimes, so do it. But sometimes it won’t. Sometimes you will need therapy and/or medication in addition to all that. And it’s fine. Other people have it much worse than you. What you have is a double-edge sword, a blessing and a curse, and I’ll stop with the cliches because I know how much you hate them. The point is that you have a ton of energy, and sometimes it will backfire. But sometimes it will lead you to obsess about constructive things, and you will accomplish a lot of awesomeness. But during the dark times, there isn’t that much you can do besides the above. I know patience is not your thing, so just endure and distract yourself if/when you can. Try to take the focus away from yourself by helping other people, it sometimes works. You will have prolonged periods of feeling great, punctuated by the occasional shitstorm that will catch you naked and holding a broken umbrella. Just close your eyes and don’t let the excrement of life get in them.

Anyway, you are a pretty lucky guy. I think that if we sat down together and analyzed 1000 random runs of our potential life, this one would be 95% percentile good. Hang in there and I’ll see you in 35 years. We won’t have flying cars, we won’t be vacationing in space. But we’ll have the most amazing pocket computers you can imagine. Air travel will be the same, but cars will be much safer and close to driving themselves. Enjoy the ride.

PS: when this thing called “Bitcoin” appears in 2010, buy 10000 of them and sell them in 2021 when they hit 50k a piece. Don’t tell anyone, you’ll thank me later.

Things I Did In 2021

For me 2021 was an unusual year. Not because of Covid mind you, that was the same for everyone else. What made it special for me was that I consumed way too much content compared to previous years, yet spent a large part of my time in nature. It may sound somewhat contradictory, but hundreds of hours of California driving are easy to fill with audiobooks and podcasts. I am writing this mostly for myself, because I enjoy the exercise. I know I would enjoy reading similar recaps from people I know. If you get inspired by this, please ping me!

  • I read 60 books. Some of my favorites in no particular order: The Anomaly, The Righteous Mind, American Gods, Project Hail Mary, Evicted, How to Hide an Empire.
  • I climbed outdoors more than any other year. In particular in the Lake Tahoe area and in Yosemite, but also in Nevada, Utah and Oregon. I did my hardest boulder problems at the age of 52, who knew.
  • I did not buy very many things. If I have to think about the one object that gave me the most bang for the buck, it could be the $30 electric blanket I picked up at CVS on a cold night. I am sitting on it as I write this.
  • I participated and graduated from the South Park Commons community. I met some amazing people there, and it remains one of my main connections with the tech/entrepreneurial world.
  • I made two new investments in startups: BitTrap and Belo.
  • I made hundreds of cappuccinos and consumed between 10 and 15 pounds of coffee beans (not really tracking). My home espresso setup is pretty optimized at this point, I know what I like and how to make it.
  • I spent many hours working on my Ford E250 camper van conversion. This forced me to get better at carpentry and plumbing, among other useful skills. By October it was finally ready, and I managed to sleep several nights in it before the weather got too wet for bouldering. The insulation could be better, but I managed to sleep comfortably with outside temperatures in the teens.
  • I grew some delicious tomatoes this year, as well as a variety of peppers including jalapeños, cowhorns and Santa Fe Grandes. I planted a Meyer lemon tree.
  • I bought a cast iron pan and made steaks for the first time in years.
  • I spent some time experimenting with air quality sensors, in particular CO2. I set up a few with Raspberry Pi boards and some Python code. I gained some insights about how CO2 builds up in a room when it is not well ventilated, and how important it is to breathe good air.
  • On a related note, I reverse-engineered an exercise bike I found in the street. I built a controller and a display for it using an Arduino and some other components I had lying around.
  • Even though I am no longer interested in becoming fluent in Chinese, I kept up with my daily morning Duolingo routine. I reached a 1000-day streak a few days ago.
  • I briefly got into Rubik’s Cube, learned how to solve it mechanically, managed to bring my solving time down to 40 seconds.
  • I designed and built a folding toilet, because I wanted to be able to poop in the woods without having to use my arms to hold on to a tree. It worked remarkably well.
  • I had the foundation of my house repaired. It was in really bad shape when I bought it. It took three months, several people and maybe 10% of the cost of the house. Supposedly it’s now ready to withstand a big quake.
  • I worked for DoorDash for a few days. The main reason was to qualify for an early Covid vaccine, but it was also a surprisingly interesting experience. I learned that it’s possible to survive in the Bay Area working these types of jobs, if you are young and alert. It feels like playing a very risky game that pays well enough if you’re good at it.

Overall, a pretty good year.

NFTS, OpenSea and Conflicts of Interest

I want to buy a piece of art, so I go to an art gallery. The art gallery provides two different services:

  1. They guarantee that this piece of art was actually made by the artist (not a fake).
  2. They guarantee that I am buying the piece from its rightful owner, which may be the artist or someone else.

An NFT marketplace attempts to be the analog of an art gallery in the digital world. Now they have to solve those two problems if they want to have a viable business. Here is where the differences with a traditional art gallery begin.

An art gallery is exclusive and selective. They have a limited amount of physical space, so they will be extremely picky about what they sell. On the other hand, OpenSea can list as many NFTs as people will upload. From their terms of service:


And this is a problem:

What happened here? A random person (Alice) minted an NFT of a digital image. Alice listed the NFT on OpenSea. Alice’s NFT is not verified, so in theory it should be worthless. However, if someone buys it then OpenSea makes money. This means they have no incentive to take down unverified NFTs.

There is another problem highlighted by the above tweet. The artist believes that Alice stole the art. Technically this is copyright infringement, in the sense that Alice is making unauthorized use of the artwork. However, this is different from posting a movie online. If I torrent a movie and watch it, I enjoy the full value of the movie for free (assuming no difference in quality compared to a legit streaming). On the other hand, if I buy the random NFT I do not get the same value as if I had bought the verified one. That NFT is not scarce, and I simply paid for the service of minting an NFT of a random image (which I could have done myself).

A savvy artist (Bob) would completely kill the market for fake NFTs simply by verifying the public key of the NFTs he mints. He would use several independent channels, the same way it is done for all software that deals with crypto. Bob would even enjoy the free publicity brought by all the fakes of his work. In his YouTube channel he could say “if you like me and see a fake, please report it. My originals are all signed by me, my signature is below, and on my site, and in my Twitter profile. Verify it always. Don’t forget to like and subscribe!” Bob could even make and spread fakes of his own work to make himself appear more popular than he is!

Of course most artists are not this savvy, and this creates an opportunity. Ultimately a reputable NFT marketplace must Know Their Customer. They should not sell art that for which they cannot make the two guarantees above. In theory artists should boycott OpenSea until they have no choice but to eliminate unverified listings, but again this is a matter of incentives. An artist who makes NFTs wants to list them somewhere, and OpenSea is the most prominent marketplace today.

I believe ultimately this will find an equilibrium: on one hand, almost nobody will buy the worthless unverified NFTs. On the other hand, other marketplaces will arise. Finally, more artists will understand that these unverified NFTs do not really pose a risk to the value of their legitimately verified art. Finally, buying a legit NFT from an artist must be linked to a good or service that is actually unique and scarce. Creating that uniqueness and scarcity is the real art in this matter.

We Do Not Vote Every Four Years. We Vote Every Day.

When an election day approaches, social media explodes with comments about the importance of showing up to vote. However, the impact of voting must be compared with that of other daily activities. My thesis is that voting is overvalued, and that daily with comparable effects are undervalued. In this post I will explore why.

First, what is voting? In a democratic election, everyone is given one token. A person then must choose how to assign this token, from a very small list of options. Votes are tallied, and the winner is now entitled to a given power for some period of time.

We can draw a parallel with other limited resources that we allocate every day, and that benefit the recipients in similar ways. The most obvious ones to me are money and attention. Every day I have a certain amount of dollars to spend, and I choose how to spend them from a very large number of options. The recipient(s) of my money then get a certain amount of energy that will benefit them. From a basic perspective this is no different from voting. I am sure there is a way to convert monetary contributions to a political party into votes earned; there must be a dollar value to buying myself an extra vote for the political party of my choice. However, this is not something that politicians like to talk about because it undermines the basic idea of “one person, one vote.”

Political parties aside, every purchase I make is a vote for a business or an industry. If I am feeling lazy and I do not want to cook, I can choose to vote for Doordash. If I do not want to take public transportation, I can vote for Uber. Giving power to those companies is as meaningful in terms of societal change as anything else. We are saying “I want these services to exist and thrive:” every time we give them money. Note that this money has a very direct effect compared to a vote. They receive it instantly, and can use it to fulfill a need right away. On the other hand, voting has a delay in that it takes a while to translate into power (assuming the recipient of the vote wins).

The same is true of attention. We all have a limited amount of mental bandwidth we can spend on a given day. I can choose to read a book, browse social media, engage in discussions with strangers, watch Youtube videos, like Instagram posts. Every one of these actions benefits the recipient of my attention, because attention has monetary value. Every time I acknowledge the message of a politician, I am saying “what this person says matters.” By saying this, I am giving this person credibility which translates into power.

The conclusion is that the easiest way to vote against something you do not like is to not engage with it. If you think a service or product should not exist, do not give them your money. Instead of giving them your attention by criticizing them, vote for opposing alternatives with your money and your attention. Voting for what you want is much more effective than voting against what you do not.

Adjusting the Dial of Fear

I was driving on the freeway and I saw this sign:


As I drove I did some quick math. That is about ten deaths per day. How many people are dying of Covid in California these days? Turns out the 7-day average for Covid deaths in the state is about 20 still. However, my guess is that most if not all of those people are unvaccinated. As someone fully vaccinated with Pfizer, I should not be worrying about Covid at all. If I was not wearing a mask in February of 2020, I should not be wearing one now. However I still wear a mask sometimes, even though there is little to gain from it from a rational perspective. So do most people in the Bay Area.

This made me wonder: why do I feel uncomfortable without a mask while shopping at the Home Depot? It is definitely not rational. If the Covid rates start going back up it may be justified again, but right now it is not. My hypothesis is that my brain is tuned to pay attention to what has been proven to be dangerous recently, as opposed to what is probabilistically dangerous now. As a Behavioral Economics aficionado, I try to live life more rationally and be less affected by random cognitive biases. For example, I minimize riding a bike in the San Francisco Bay Area. Why? Because the risk of death while riding a bike is 10x as large as when driving. So when I see someone riding a bike in San Francisco while wearing a mask in July of 2021, something does not feel right.

At this point you may ask yourself, how and when should I adjust my dial of fear (or risk / benefit, really). I do not really have much advice to offer, but I can share some of the things I have done. Maybe someone will find them useful.

  1. Identify the riskiest things I do, and assess whether I believe they are worth it. I really enjoy rock climbing, but I rarely climb with a rope. I mostly stick to bouldering, which is a relatively safe version of rock climbing. Probably the most dangerous part of bouldering is the drive to the locations I like to go. I am aware of this risk, and I am fine with it. I can mitigate the risk of driving by having a relatively safe car, not being in a hurry, plan to stop often. On the other hand, I used to spend a lot of time inside coffee shops prior to Covid. I would catch respiratory viruses pretty often back then, and I have not had a cold since 2019. As a consequence, I plan to limit my time in packed spaces with little ventilation in the future. Catching a cold is not life-threatening, but grabbing coffee to go is not a huge sacrifice. I can often sit outside in the Bay Area, or at worst have it in my car.
  2. Disregard tragic events in the news. There are countless books on this topic, I recommend Factfulness by Hans Rosling in particular. The basic idea is that what is newsworthy is often very unusual, and seeing something in the news may distort our perception of risk. For example, A few days ago a building collapsed in Miami resulting in the deaths of over one hundred people. One may be tempted to fear high-rise buildings. However, it is important to remember that all but one high-rise buildings in the United States have not collapsed. As awful as this accident was, there is nothing for me to change about my lifestyle. I am not going to stop going into buildings.
  3. Know the most important personal risks for you. I like this chart, and I keep referencing it:

My case seems to be fairly typical. Two of my grandparents died of heart disease, one died of cancer, one in a traffic accident. I am very likely to die like 80% of all humans. I can do is try to postpone it by leading a healthy lifestyle (food, exercise, driving carefully). I know I have been paying too much attention to Covid as a personal risk in recent times, but I am human and that is ok.

I could make this post very long, but instead I will end it with one last recommendation: when it comes to making important decisions, we humans are not great. I believe it is worth spending effort learning how to be better at these. That is a large part of what behavioral economics is about. In particular, Noise by Daniel Kahneman is fresh in my memory because it came out recently. I believe everyone should be familiar with the concepts in this book. Armed with these tools, dealing with unreasonable fears becomes easier:

  • is this bad thing reasonably likely to happen?
  • if yes, are there any decisions I need to make in order to minimize the risk and / or reduce the impact?
  • do I have decent information to make a good, relatively noise-free decision?

I know this sounds easy in writing, and in practice it takes effort. However, this is the best way I know to be at peace with the uncertainty of the future.

Twitter: The Machine to Rage Against

Suppose you are a pedestrian about to cross the street. A car approaches the crosswalk and the driver sees you. You think he will let you go first. Instead, he stops for a fraction of a second and does not give you a chance. You flip him the bird, that guy must be an inconsiderate jerk. Well, a few days ago I was that guy. This happened around the corner from my house, and I barely made it to the bathroom. I am so sorry random pedestrian, I normally would have let you go first but… when you have to go, you have to go.

This little anecdote is an example of one of my favorite cognitive biases, the Fundamental Attribution Error. This is a fancy name for the tendency to explain someone’s actions based on who we think they are, instead of what the situation may be. If we do not know either, it is easy to imagine that the person is a certain type of individual. It is harder to think “why would I have done what this person did?”

Now, let’s imagine that we are trying to create a platform for people to communicate online. However, this is not our own startup. We are on a contract with Satan himself. He instructed us to maximize confusion, outrage, misunderstandings, hatred. How do we approach this problem? I have some ideas. First, I would remove voice and image. Everyone who has ever participated in an internet forum knows that is it much easier to hate on a faceless, voiceless stranger. However, that will not be enough.

This is the fourth paragraph of this post, and I have not yet fully expressed my point. If you forced me to sum it up in 280 characters I might be able to convey the gist of it at the expense of nuance and context. If I happened to be sitting at a table with acquaintances and did this, we may engage in a conversation. If my pithy sentences were not clear enough, I would be forced to restate and elaborate. The space restriction that made Twitter popular also has nasty side effects: it forces the author to omit everything that “goes without saying.” I bet that if I went to my timeline right now, I would find an example of this pattern:

  • Person A tweets something, generally an opinion.
  • Person B interprets A’s tweet in the worst possible way, distorting the content of the tweet while assuming that this interpretation of the content is the correct one. As only an idiot could have this opinion, A is an idiot.
  • Fight ensues.

Is Satan happy yet? No, we still have room for worsening. If I am at a random party and walk around, I will hear random conversations. Perhaps I will miss the most inane or egregious ones, the ones that might make it hard for me to not react angrily. However, this is Satan’s party in Hell. Satan’s algorithmic minions will make sure that I do not miss out on these conversations. If it were a normal party Satan would care about making his guests happy, but that is not His wish. He wants us to stick around for as long as possible. How could we leave the party when someone is wrong?

Finally, let’s imagine that Satan’s party venue is in Las Vegas. The popular saying is that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but once again this need not be true. What happens on Twitter appears everywhere on the internet, and I cannot escape. Many rage-inducing tweets are quoted everywhere: Slack, Whatsapp, Discord, your social tool of choice. The author of the tweet may never know about the viral memetic agent who brought us the tweet. Twitter however knows that I cannot escape its malevolent, omnipresent internet reach.

Do you believe Twitter is not a mind virus? I invite you to convince me otherwise. Just not on Twitter.

Is Bitcoin Really Throwing Energy Away?

Today I saw yet another article about how Bitcoin is bad for the world. The authors focus on Bitcoin’s energy consumption, and find it completely pointless. Bitcoin (and by association all cryptocurrency) is the root of all evil, the Destroyer of the Environment, ManBearPig. Well, wait a minute Mr. Economist. Let’s first focus on what Bitcoin is doing with all that energy and why. Why does a financial system need energy at all?

Imagine that you tweeted “Check out these cardboard boxes containing twenty million dollars in cash [picture of your basement room].” That does not sound like a good idea. Someone might be tempted to find out where you live and break into your house. If you have that kind of cash, you will spend energy to protect it. This is because you know that others are ready to spend energy taking it from you. This happens everywhere, all the time. Stores are robbed, people get mugged, financial fraud happens. Banks have huge security budgets, move bundles of bills in armored trucks, employ armed guards.

When it comes to money we generally have to make a tradeoff between security and convenience. We all use cash or credit cards for small amounts that we could afford to lose. We do not keep large sums around. We find ways to park our money that involve losing liquidity in order to gain safety. The most common one is real estate. I recently read Factfulness by Hans Rosling. At some point he talks about how if a typical American were to visit Tunisia, she might see half-built houses and think that the locals must be lazy. Instead, they save money in bricks. Because they do not have easy access to banks, they buy bricks and add them to the construction as they go so that they will not get stolen!

I suspect the main reason Bitcoin’s electricity bill gets so much attention is that it is so easy to calculate. I would like to be able to compare Bitcoin’s security cost against the traditional mechanisms: vaults, armored trucks, security guards, police, lawyers, etc. Unfortunately this is not trivial to do. I have not yet seen a fair comparison of relative efficiencies. It is very possible that right now Bitcoin is ten, twenty or a hundred times less energy-efficient than the traditional financial system. We simply do not know.

The question that matters to me is, could cryptocurrency (not necessarily Bitcoin) make securing and transferring money more efficient in the long run? There is obviously a minimum threshold of energy that must be spent to defend from the “bad guys.” How low can we go? If we use the history of computers as a guide, I would imagine there is more room for improvement than most people think. Saying that cryptocurrencies have no future because they use too much energy would be like saying (in 1950) that “computers will never be popular because they take up too much real estate.”

Construction begins on ENIAC, May 31, 1943 - EDN

I suspect in the long run Bitcoin will be remembered like ENIAC, a pioneer of cryptocurrencies. I do not imagine that Bitcoin can easily move away from its current securing mechanism (Proof of Work). Instead, newer cryptoassets will take advantage of greener mechanisms. Perhaps proof of stake, perhaps something else (proof of space, time, who knows). It is a solvable problem, and the only reason it has not been solved yet is the extremely fast explosion in popularity that crypto is experiencing. If you believe in the concept of digital and decentralized money with arbitrary features that go beyond what cash can provide, it’s time to place your bets and wait.

Generic VC Advice Letter for COVID Times

These are unprecedented times. By unprecedented I do not mean that the current situation has not occurred before. Of course there have been pandemics, perhaps even as recently as one thousand years ago. However, as a Venture Capitalist I do not believe in looking back. I believe that we must build for the future. We could build for the past too, but I am convinced that it would be the wrong bet. I for one am investing in the Future.

I foresee hard times ahead. Only the companies that manage to not die will survive. The rest will not make it. The question we need to ask ourselves is, how can we predict who will be the winners and the losers? The short answer is that we cannot, but that would be a disappointing thought. Let me give the long answer then. It is always possible to predict the future if you do not aspire to be accurate, and that is my job.

Coronavirus is a game changer. This is a time of war, and only wartime CEOs should be at the helm of our portfolio companies. This is why we have organized a founder retreat / boot camp in which our negatively tested portfolio leaders will learn the basics of hand-to-hand combat and guerrilla warfare. We do not expect that all of them will make it back, but that is a sacrifice our fund is willing to make. As Steve Jobs was fond of saying, “death is very likely the single best invention of life.”

Our founders who come back will be stronger and ready to build. Build what, you may ask? Things, of course. This may seem like a completely obvious answer with the benefit of 2030 hindsight, but today we are willing to bet the farm of our LPs on this thesis. And let me be more specific, without fear of alerting our competitors. Some of the things our portfolio investments will build are necessary because our governments worldwide are incapable of providing the services fundamental to operating the mechanisms that would make it possible for citizens to perform the duties required to avert future unknowns. You can read that again.

Roads? No, where we are going we don’t need roads. We are going places that are inside perhaps. We are going to the mind. We need self-cutting hair. We need infrastructure that will help us restart the American Dream after restoring a backup from an update prior to the buggy release that should not have been approved by the QA director we have just fired.

Let me stress an important point: we need to build for everyone. And by everyone, I mean specifically those who will pay for the products and services our companies will provide. We also will build mechanisms to facilitate citizen access to loans to purchase said products and services, because in times of need we must also help each other without expecting anything in return.

There are innumerable ways to honor the legacy of our forefathers, foremothers, and foreuncles. We believe in exactly one of those ways, which is to build. Things, specifically. So from Meccano to Legoland, here we come with a brick in our hand.

Short Story: Smoke on the Water

Writing prompt: It has been discovered that some people don’t get sick with the virus. Instead, it enhances them somehow. Is it a superpower? Will it last? No idea, anything goes. You are one of these people (e.g. Laura Derpson, lawyer, 37) and you describe what happened / is happening to you. 500 words or less.

James Hirschbaum, 54, accountant from Jefferson Park, PA

When my fitness band melted, I thought it was a bit weird. Then I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of water. As I walked back to the couch, I thought I saw steam rising from the surface. I did not really pay much attention; I drank it and it seemed cold to me. The rest of the day was a blur, I assume it was ordinary. When I woke up the next morning I felt great, but everything around me was on fire. “This is fine,” I thought as I jumped through the window. Actually, jump is not the right word. I flew.

As I saw my flaming house from above, somehow this seemed natural. Soaring around the neibghborhood with a smokey trail behind me was as exciting as filing form 475B – State of Pennsylvania Exemption for Nonoperational Urinal. My mind was occupied with the more important fact: the virus set me on fire, and fire killed it!

It did not take me long to find a few other Fire People. I did some math and estimated that there must be hundreds of thousands of us in the world. Our tribe crossed thirty today. We are starting to figure out an organizational structure. We are too small for taxation, but for now my role is clear: I am the record keeper. If it turns out that the virus adapts to fire and gets us in the end, our story will not be lost. I burn letters into wood with my pinky every night, as the others cook our food by hand (literally).

Last month we went out and performed a service for the Old Society, just because it seemed right. There was a pile of thousands of Normal bodies left outside of Pittsburgh, and we cremated them. It felt very sobering and proper, as if we were paying our share. I estimate that we need to do this at least once every three months, and I have established a cremation goal for every member of the tribe based on their respective contributions to the group. Old accountant habits die hard.

It turns out we, the Fire People, are not a special case. Yesterday we finally saw the first patrol of Water Elementals, so we know that we do not have a lot of time until the first battle. The element of surprise is key: they can extinguish us, or we can vaporize them. Who will prevail, I have no idea. However, no matter the outcome, it still will be better than the fate of the Normals. As I write this, we unite in our battle chant. “LIKE DEATH AND TAXES WE SHALL NEVER EXPIRE, WE ARE THE PEOPLE OF THE FIRE!”

Why Learn to Code for Fun and Not Profit

Twenty years into the millennium, programming jobs still pay well. Software is everywhere, and organizations need “construction workers” of code. A significant portion of the work in this field does not require a college education. New learning institutions (such as coding bootcamps) have emerged to fulfill demand. It was not always like this, of course. Back in the 80s when I wrote my first lines of BASIC, I did not learn to program in the belief that it would lead to a career. I did it because it was a fun and challenging hobby. Decades later, I believe that learning how software works is important even if you never intend to make a dime as a programmer. Why?

TI99/4A BASIC from the 1980s, my first programming language

Over the history of humanity, we have learned to build all kinds of machines. Some of them are very simple. At first glance, one may not grasp the ingenuity it took to create them. Think of an hourglass, or a door knob. A kitchen stove, perhaps. If you see one of these for the first time, it may not be obvious how it works. If you are curious, you might want to take it apart and figure it out. Other machines are more complex. A car engine, a vacuum cleaner, a transistor radio. These mechanisms were invented much more recently, as the result of cumulative knowledge gained during the Industrial Revolution. If you wish to understand how one of them operates, you may need to study some basic science such as chemistry, mechanics, electromagnetism. However, all these machines are physical systems. There is a limit to their complexity because of space constraints and materials.

With computers, many of these limitations go away. When you write a program, you are building a machine simply by describing it. Think about the implications of this: you are using a physical machine (the computer) as the material support for a logical machine (the program). This second machine is extremely malleable. Unlike the fixed hardware of the computer, you can describe a practically infinite number of machines. A spreadsheet, a first-person-shooter game, an app to put cat noses and bunny ears on your selfies. The primary limitation is our collective ability to imagine these applications.

As you learn to code, you will experience several “aha!” moments as you gain new insights. Some examples:

  • A computer is a very dumb mechanism. However, it is incredibly fast. If you make it do something stupid repeatedly, it will do it millions of times before you stop it.
  • Once you have built one of these machines, you can copy it indefinitely. You will never need to build one like it from scratch again. Imagine if you could build a chair or an airplane just once and then clone it every time you needed one, for free.
  • You can use a piece of software as a building block for new pieces of software. In other words, you can build machines using machines built from machines, ad infinitum. How many of them are collaborating to create your reading experience right now? How many people were involved in making them?

It is easy for me to write about these insights, but I cannot fully convey their significance with words alone. I might as well be talking about the ecstasy of seeing the Earth rise over the lunar horizon for the first time. I do hope these words inspire you to dip your toes in the vast ocean of zeros and ones. Just like there is no need to become a historian in order to enjoy history, we also do not need to aspire to professional software wizardry to appreciate the beauty of these machines created purely by thought.